SAN JOSE, Calif. -- While the stomachs of 17,562 fans at HP Pavilion were churning Thursday night, Patrick Marleau showed the intestinal fortitude of the guy in the circus who takes cannonballs in the gut.
As if zero points in six games against the Detroit Red Wings during a Western Conference Semifinal that was slipping away from the San Jose Sharks wasn't enough, Marleau had to answer questions about his character when former teammate and Versus analyst Jeremy Roenick called him "gutless" following the loss in Game 5.
Marleau rose to the occasion in a massive way during Game 7, scoring what turned out to be the game-winning goal in the Sharks' 3-2 victory against the Red Wings, moving San Jose to the Western Conference Final for the second year in a row.
The goal was the result of Marleau going to the tough area -- driving to the net during a 3-on-2 rush and slamming home the rebound of Devin Setoguchi’s shot with 7:47 remaining in the third period. Marleau isn't prone to showing much emotion on or off the ice, but the look on his face after his first point of the series said it all.
The goal combined with the victory gave one player in the Sharks’ locker room who looks up to Marleau a chance to express his joy over the performance.
"Everyone in this room knows what was said about him, and we all disagree," said Sharks rookie Logan Couture, who scored in his fourth straight game Thursday. "We see what Patty does every day and how hard he works. The media doesn't see that. They're not part of the team and they're not in the room. They're not in the weight room where Patty is. It's good to see him score. He's a great role model for myself."
Marleau, who refused to fire back at criticism when things were going bad during Games 4-6, didn't take a chance to gloat after coming up with one of the more clutch goals to be scored in the playoffs in recent years.
"It felt good to be on the scoresheet and be able to get the game-winner," Marleau said after scoring for the first time in 17 tries in Game 6 or 7 of a playoff series. "But we still have a long ways to go here and another month to play. We're just going to get better."
What about the criticism? Nothing to say about that?
"It's all background noise," Marleau said. "You try to put it in the background and just focus on what I can control and what I need to do to get ready for the game. I've still got better games ahead of me."
While comments from outside the locker room might not bother Marleau, coach Todd McLellan's opinion that his star player needed to be better in the series certainly didn't go unnoticed. So after Marleau answered the call in Game 7, McLellan was effusive in his praise for what his former captain did with the season on the line.
"Patty's been through an awful lot," McLellan said. "When things don't go well, people question him. That was out there. But obviously with the way we played him in the series and the amount of minutes that he got, we obviously believe in him. Immensely. For him to end up with the winning goal is pretty special for our team and for him. I think the monkey will be off his back and he'll be even that much better next series."
As satisfying as that goal was for Marleau, the play he made in the final seconds with the Sharks hanging onto a one-goal lead may have been even more important.
The Red Wings pulled Jimmy Howard for an extra attacker and were applying tremendous pressure down low. With about 10 seconds remaining, Patrick Eaves was lost in coverage and found himself all alone in front of goaltender Antti Niemi. The puck found its way to Eaves, but before he could pull the trigger on what likely would've been a game-tying goal, Marleau came out of nowhere to flatten Eaves.
Marleau eventually got the puck out of the zone and triggered a wild celebration on the bench and in the stands.
"Why wouldn't I have him out there? He's a world-class player," McLellan said when asked about having Marleau on the ice with the game on the line. "He's been involved in a lot of pressure situations and like I said, we believe in him. You lose a few games, and everybody starts questioning him. Yeah, he could've been better, but he was a difference-maker tonight."
If history is any indicator, Marleau's goal could be a great sign of things to come for the Sharks. Last season, he scored the series-clinching goal against the Red Wings. In the West Final against the Chicago Blackhawks, Marleau had 5 goals and 1 assist in the four-game loss.
Sure, the Sharks don’t want a repeat of the series outcome, but maybe Marleau will offer another performance that will leave the opposition sick to its stomach.
"Everybody in the Bay Area, I'm sure is happy for him," Sharks captain Joe Thornton said. "I'm sure it took a lot of weight off his shoulders, and now he's ready to go."